Barack Obama at Lincoln Memorial
Celebration, songs — and serious message from the president-elect
By Robin Abcarian and Jill Zuckman
January 19, 2009
President-elect Barack Obama and his family, along with Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, wait for the start of the concert at the Lincoln Memorial . (Tribune photo by Zbigniew Bzdak / January 18, 2009)
WASHINGTON — It was a day that combined high-minded political rhetoric with the very best of pop culture. Tens of thousands of citizens, a throng more than a mile long on the National Mall, braved cold weather and long security lines to attend a historic concert celebrating the country's first black president, held at the feet of the monument honoring the country's great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
As black-clad sharpshooters patrolled the parapet of the Lincoln Memorial, President-elect Barack Obama and his family had what looked like a rocking good time. They sat with Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, royalty-style, in a glass-walled booth on one side of the stage.
During the two-hour concert, broadcast on HBO, they clapped, danced a little and sang along as they were feted by entertainment royalty—actors and musicians including Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Jamie Foxx, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, Usher, will.i.am, John Legend, Sheryl Crow, Shakira, James Taylor, Garth Brooks and Pete Seeger.
Golf great Tiger Woods spoke of growing up in a military family, and he introduced the Naval Academy's glee club, which performed with famed soprano Renee Fleming.
Obama and Biden each spoke briefly, delivering words reminiscent of their stump speeches, both speaking to the anxiety that has the country in its grip and both promising a better tomorrow.
"In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now," Obama said. "But despite all of this—despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead—I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time... For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith — a faith that anything is possible in America."
The choice of Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal bishop, to give the invocation seemed to be a deliberate counterpoint to Obama's selection of conservative evangelical Rev. Rick Warren, a gay-marriage opponent, to give the prayer at his swearing-in Tuesday. Robinson urged the crowd to remember that Obama "is a human being, not a messiah" and asked God to "keep him safe that he might find joy in this impossible calling."
Bono, the Irishman and lead singer of U2, injected the only seemingly unrehearsed political note to the day. Just after Obama's wife, Michelle, blew him a kiss, he said the election of Obama represented "not just an American dream — also an Irish dream, a European dream, African dream, Israeli dream and also a Palestinian dream."
While organizers had promised that songs would reflect the day's slogan, "We Are One," and not be a series of greatest hits, U2 performed one of its most recognizable songs: "(Pride) In the Name of Love," — a paean to Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King III stood on nearly the same spot where his father delivered the famous "I have a dream" speech in 1963 that informs so much of the emotion evoked by the election of the country's first black president. The son of the slain civil rights leader introduced a clip of John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech — with its noted line "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." — and said Monday's holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, should be a day of service to others. (The Obamas and Bidens will be celebrating the holiday by performing yet-unannounced acts of public service and have encouraged others to do the same.)
Steve Carell and Foxx invoked Thomas Jefferson and Thurgood Marshall. Foxx did a spot-on impersonation of Obama that quoted from his speech at Chicago's Grant Park the night he won the presidential election. He also gave a shout-out to the new president's adopted hometown: "Chi-town stand up! 312!"
As Chicagoans in the vast crowd recognized their area code and yelled, the Obamas stood up and waved.
Queen Latifah spoke about "the ongoing journey of America to be America," and she recalled that the great black contralto Marian Anderson had been denied the opportunity to perform in Washington in 1939 by Daughters of the American Revolution, prompting then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to arrange for Anderson to sing for a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson quoted Rosa Parks; Hanks quoted Lincoln. "I got one question," said comedian George Lopez. "Anyone here from outta town?"
As the crowd roared, Lopez said, "Well, you're all home now."
Toward the end of the afternoon, Springsteen, who had opened the show singing "The Rising" with a choir, returned to the stage with Pete Seeger to engage the crowd in a singalong of Woody Guthrie's iconic folk song "This Land is Your Land."
After Beyonce sang "America the Beautiful," the day's performers filed back onto the stage, and the Obamas and Bidens shook hands, as if they were working some kind of dream rope line.
"It makes you believe in dreams," Danielle Wielding, a 25-year-old Chicago native who lives in Baltimore, said of the event. Wielding had arrived at the mall at 9 a.m. and was moved to tears, she said, by Brooks singing "We Shall be Free" and Beyonce singing "America the Beautiful."
"I have dreams," said Wielding, "and all of this—the setting, the music, the Obamas—makes me believe those dreams are possible."
Abcarian is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times; Zuckman is a reporter with the Tribune Washington Bureau. Stacy St. Clair of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.